Just before the big flood of 1972 in Rochester, New York, in the wake of Hurricane Agnus, my father moved out of our house for good. It was quiet at night after that, just my mother and me and the rain pounding down on the roof. Some evenings, I had to get out of the house. I would drive my mother’s Chevelle to a small ridge above the Genesee River and watch the dark water swirl menacingly above its banks. Days away from my high school graduation, I asked myself why my folks had to split up, now of all times.
In Dad’s absence, I found myself promoted to second in command of our house, and with that I had new duties: I planned our menus, did all the grocery shopping and made sure the car was running well. With the heavy rain we’d been having, I worried, along with my mother, and waited for the floodwater to back up and strike our home. We heard that other houses in our neighborhood had been hit. The water table was so high, and the sump pumps could not keep up with the extraordinary volume of water. We sensed it was our turn, but we didn’t know what to do.
It came at night – quietly, steadily, filling our basement while we slept. The next morning, I turned on the basement lights but the power was out. Then I peered down the stairwell: four feet of still, black water had backed up over the hours. Mother stood close beside me and we held each other for a moment. Then I went down the basement stairs and sat, just one step above the water. I could see only the top of the deep-freeze – our washer and dryer weren’t even visible. A basketball floated by, some chunks of wood from Dad’s workshop and a few of his fishing bobbers. I watched, with a kind of morbid fascination, these bits of my father’s life go drifting by.
I called the fire department to see if they could drain our basement, but we were put on a waiting list along with hundreds of other families. After two days, they were still too busy to help. A state of emergency had been declared in Monroe County – the rain had not stopped, and sandbagging crews worked around the clock to save the homes along the banks of the Genesee and even Lake Ontario. I finally called Dad for help. He came by directly from work and rigged up a pump which drained the basement within hours. I wanted him to stay after he finished but he couldn’t, or wouldn’t. He gave me a hug and said he’d see me at graduation.
Soon after, a dank and musty smell arose from the basement. I coaxed Mom downstairs to investigate the damage. Stepping gingerly over the mud-slicked floor, we confirmed that the washer, dryer, and freezer were shot. Then we turned to the storeroom. We hadn’t really planned to begin a clean-up, but we started tugging and pulling at the swollen stacks of Time and Life magazines anyway, anxious to get them out of the house. We came across the special issue about Kennedy’s assassination. Further below, we found another issue devoted to his inauguration. And there, at the bottom of the pile of sodden pulp, we found my mother’s art portfolio.
She had been a fine artist at one time; her nudes and oil still-lifes hang on the walls of some our friends’ homes to this day. But she’d abandoned most of her artwork when she started working for a lawyer in town. By that time, she and dad had already been fighting. How her portfolio ended up at the bottom of a stack of magazines in the basement, neither of us knew. In her anger and pain, she lashed out at my father. “He let this happen, my work, just dumped here.”
In my mind, it didn’t really matter who had done it, only that the pictures might somehow be saved, but I was not inclined to argue with her. Carefully, I peeled off the first drawing on the stack, a nude done in red charcoal, barely distinguishable now because of the fine layer of silt that clung to it. Mom gazed at the work and then started to cry. It was as if each piece had once been a living thing, now discovered dead.
The task was slow, filthy, and arduous, but to our amazement, the sketches and drawings from the middle of the stack survived, as did the oils, whose base material naturally repelled water. Mom and I took turns lifting the charcoal paper and canvases from the pile and then hanging them on the clotheslines that ran the length of our basement.
As we worked late into the evening, Mom’s spirits lifted. I liked her paintings and sketches and told her so. Her nudes especially – the graceful, rounded shoulders of the women, the powerful buttocks of the men. And I was drawn to one oil painting in particular, a simple study of an orange, a banana and an indigo pitcher against a backdrop of ghostly white. After we finished going through the pictures, we stepped back to admire her resurrected art.
The rain continued right through to the night of my graduation. My father came to the event at the Eastman, as promised, and sat seven rows behind my mother. I saw him only briefly after the ceremony – a rush of white gowns and mortar boards all around us. I went on to a much-anticipated graduation party which ran late into the evening and tried to forget about the soggy pictures in the basement, our quiet house, and the lost look on my dad’s face after the ceremony.
Several years after the flood, after I had moved out and gone on to university, my parents grew friendly again. They saw each other at least once a week – Dad would come over and take Mom out to dinner or to a movie. Or they would just sit in the kitchen and talk. They were “dating” again, as my mother would explain it. .
I don’t know if Dad ever went down to the basement. If he had, he would have found shelves lined with old tools and vases, his fishing tackle box. And, on the long wall near the sump-pump, he would have seen over a dozen of Mom’s oil paintings, a little warped, but the colors held true.
Deborah Nash Ott is a retired English teacher from Rochester, New York. She holds an MA Ed from the University of Colorado at Denver, where she also received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She has lived and taught in both the United States and Switzerland. Over the years, she has participated in several writers’ groups and led workshops of her own. She loves to write and has done so all her life. Her guides have been the authors she has read and taught, and the women writers who have mentored her. Although her work is informed by a love of nature, her travels, and her life abroad, her subjects are often based on her own family. Her articles, short stories and poems have been published in small presses in both the United States and in Switzerland. She now lives and writes in Simsbury, Connecticut.